23 thoughts on “Obama’s Asteroid”

  1. “National Space Symposium without NASA was like a White House Correspondents’ Dinner without journalists. That is to say, it didn’t matter as much as you’d think.”

    Humor sometimes being the best place to find truth.

  2. I don’t understand the NASA nostalgia. Why so many free markets types completely lose it when thinking about space travel is bizarre to me. NASA is a government agency and it does space travel as well as you would expect from a government agency. Why that’s considered a good thing is a puzzle. My view is that we would be a decade or two ahead of where we are now if NASA had been terminated in 1970.

    1. Because back in the 1960s, our large, centrally ran soviet-style space program beat the Soviet Unions large, centrally ran soviet-style space program. Like the Manhattan Project before it, the Apollo Program proved that if you’re willing to throw nearly unlimited funding at some problems, big government sometimes works. And sometimes it doesn’t (e.g. war on poverty, war on cancer, war on drugs…).

      1. Actually, the Soviets had these “design bureaus” — the OKB’s. Maybe the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center is the closest entity to Korelev’s OKB-1.

        The U.S. system, well, if it wasn’t the Soviet Communist system, maybe it was the German Nazi one, although we put the Operation Paperclip Germans into a Soviet style design bureau at the Redstone Arsenal.

        Otherwise, we had this more German-style system of the government working with the aerospace contractors — Martin-Marietta, North American, McDonnell.

        1. One advantage of the American systems is that with the Soviets, my understanding is that each of the Experimental Design Bureaus (the OKB’s) reported to the very highest level of government — the Politboro — on account of the national security nature of the work, which merited the highest priority, accountability, and secrecy for national security reasons.

          We may have had a similar thing regarding CIA (Discoverer-Corona), Navy (Viking, Vanguard), Air Force (Titan), and Army (Redstone) each having their own independent and competing space programs in the early days.

          President Eisenhower’s aversion to the overt and open space program being a military program led to NACA becoming NASA, putting “the space program” under a unified agency oversight. Yeah, yeah, you had lobbying and pork barrel politics, but you didn’t have competing space bureaus fighting with each other over which mode (EOR, LOR, Direct), booster (Titan, Saturn) and which spacecraft (Gemini, Apollo) got the crash program priority.

          Well, OK, there was “lunar Gemini”, but it didn’t get very far.

  3. At this point, if you had to bet who would do more to open up manned access to space, excluding the new space startups, would you place your money on NASA or Red Bull?

  4. Oh, sorry. I thought this post was about sending Obama to an asteroid. I would chip in. Heck, we could even name it after him. No skin off my nose.

  5. I don’t support government spending.. but if I was choosing a space mission to privately fund, and a team came to me with this “asteroid heist”, I’d be hard pressed to think of anything better.

    To me, the point of any return to the Moon, would be to get access to resources that would change the game for future space missions. No longer would we have to think of everything we want to do in space in terms of lifting mass from the surface of the Earth.

    When you consider the amount of infrastructure required to lift an asteroid-sized mass from the surface of the Moon, and the actual material that you get, the logistics of asteroid wrangling seem minor.

    However, NASA hasn’t even received funding to study this mission yet.

    1. Can we say that the mission plan is “If Obama can’t come to the asteroid, let the asteroid come to Obama”?

  6. The “lesson in all this” that PJ refers to at the end is that space has always been a political football, and no one in Washington (other than Newt) has ever really cared about how useful its actions in space were as long as it was useful for votes. As Rand says, “space is unimportant”. We are lucky that firms like SpaceX and Bigelow and XCOR are getting involved, because finally someone with budgetary authority will care.


    I disagree with Trent that this asteroid mission is a best next step. If I had a magic wand of make-NASA-behave, I’d get them to focus on Lunar ISRU.

    The benefit of the Moon is that once you have an industrial base there, it never has to be relocated. You’ll never run out of material to mine. Well, maybe water. But not ore. Asteroids, by comparison, are very small.

    And getting mass off the Moon really isn’t that hard. With an industrial base it would be easy to build an linear accelerator that throws mass into orbit, or to a Lagrange point. Low gravity + no air resistance = easy peasy.

    And working in 1/6 g has to be much easier to design for than zero g. Gravity is just something most of our engineers are just used to having.

    The one sort of asteroid I would approve catching would be something big and icy. Having an ocean’s worth of water in orbit would be a Very Good Thing. But for orbital mass construction (steel, ceramics, carbon stuff), the Moon will do.

    1. I’d add that the other problem with an asteroid mission is that it is too much of a mission with an obvious endpoint, its completion. There’s nothing that necessarily implies that a second asteroid would be captured, making it very easy to terminate without looking like it’s getting unnaturally terminated.

      “The asteroid mission was a success. Great job team. Now on to another goal in America’s program.”

    2. I disagree with Trent that this asteroid mission is a best next step. If I had a magic wand of make-NASA-behave, I’d get them to focus on Lunar ISRU.

      Because NASA has so much experience in the mining industry?

      Do you have any reason to believe NASA would do anything but demonstrate that ISRU is prohibitively expensive, at best, impossible, at worst? Guaranteeing that no one else would try it for a generation? (See “X-33” and “SSTO”.)

    3. See Ed’s reply.

      If I had a magic wand of make-NASA-behave, I’d get them to focus on Lunar ISRU.

      You don’t. For whatever stupid reason it is this time, NASA has managed to stumble upon a mission that might actually be valuable to people who have rational goals in space. Instead of dreaming about what NASA could be doing, or just hoping that they close up shop and go away, we can cheer them on. Don’t worry, they’ll inevitably screw it up and we can go back to crying into our soup.

      Also, linear accelerator that throws mass into orbit, you mean High Speed Rail!, or to a Lagrange point, where you have to have a giant catcher’s mitt to slow down the pellets or they just keep flying off into space (ref). Totally impractical, it’s a product of a different era.

      1. You know, throwing stuff from the moon into space is just an artificial asteroid. If we have enough of the real thing, why the extra [expensive and slow to develop] step?

        1. Because the moon does not require ANY reboost or attitude control or station keeping fuel, and presents areas at the pole with nearly continuous sunlight and unlimited GCR and SEP shielding immediately upon landing. There is little reason to leave the moon once you get there, but if you want to leave you won’t be hard pressed for reusable spacecraft if you do it correctly. Asteroids are going to be an almost continuous headache once you capture and move them. I’m all for going to the asteroids and certainly all for finding every last one of them.

          1. Asteroids are a continuous headache? Guest did you even read my comment? Whatever you railgun off the moon IS AN ASTEROID.

            Did you read what Trent said about a mitt?

            The good news is the navy does have railguns of the required velocity.

      2. If NASA just wants to investigate a small rock to justify SLS/Orion, and an asteroid isn’t actually a requirement but just a way to avoid building a lunar lander (or avoid disobeying Obama), then there’s a simple solution using existing hardware. They just have to talk the Air Force out of a single W-87 warhead and nuke the moon. Sure, there won’t be any trajectory control over the debris, but there’s bound to be some worth chasing.

  7. “They just have to talk the Air Force out of a single W-87 warhead ”

    Or talk the Chinese People’s Army out of one . . . (ba doom boom!)

  8. I don’t understand the asteroid mission at all.

    Okay, they want to capture a small (very small) asteroid and place it in orbit around the moon, so it can be studied by an Orion mission? Wouldn’t we learn a great deal more by moving it to somewhere with easier access? They want to use SEP, so, would it really be that much harder to put the thing in LEO so it could be studied at ISS? Or, better, a large sample return mission so it could be studied on Earth? (Load a few thousand pounds into an unmanned Dragon or Orion).

    If I’m reading it right, the motive for the mission is in understanding the structure of asteroids to evaluate deflection concepts? If so, how does the mission make any sense? It’s be ONE NEO they would get to study, a small one at that. They’d learn little to nothing of the structure of larger ones. If structure is what they want to study, wouldn’t a few unmanned one-way missions to a few to actually study their structure be better?

    I just don’t see the point of a manned mission to somewhere smaller than the spacecraft – better to bring back a smaller chunk to where it can be better studied. I’m all for manned spaceflight, but it seems to me that this is the worst use of it.

  9. I forget which, Phobos or Deimos, but one of them will eventually fall into mars. Perhaps they could practice on that one? Plus they could prepare a base on mars at the same time.

  10. “Or, as one of the Space Symposium participants put it, ‘To boldly go where no man has ever shown much interest in going.’ ”

    Best quote ever.

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